The past and future of Rye News

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A screenshot of the Rye News site launched in 2014. Co-founders Dennis Leeds-George, Margaret and Kenneth Bird

Following the article “Farewell to our founder – Rye News” about Kenneth Bird’s well-earned retirement, it seems timely to look back over those eight years, share some of the challenges and issues raised and to ask you, the readers, to join in the discussion on ways of taking Rye News into the future.

Kenneth and Dennis Leeds-George (who is still a Director) share the honours of being co-founders because they got talking at a meeting of the Rye Voluntary Action Group and found that they had the same idea for setting up a community newspaper.  As Kenneth so eloquently puts it “rather like Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace both simultaneously promoting the theory of evolution by natural selection, Dennis and I had the same idea but it needed our meeting to get it going”.

Kenneth’s post published in May 2015, one year after Rye News began, called “Happy Birthday and Thank You” states:

“This is a people’s paper. It is here because of volunteers. It is not about making money. It is about people caring enough about their community to write about it, to photograph it, and to publish it. For free.”

The founding principles were:

  1. Act as a platform for voluntary organisations
  2. A forum for comment, opinions and discussion on local issues
  3. Showcase Rye and the villages around to bring visitors to the town for commerce and entertainment. Local businesses will be promoted through advertising or features on new local enterprise

A very important founding principle for Kenneth was to nurture the sense of community within Rye and District. He says “Local journalism has a key role to play in fostering a sense of community identity. It has an important function in informing and educating its readers. As well as providing entertainment, a local journal will publicise opportunities for creative involvement in the life of the community. Rye was small enough to foster this idea of social cohesion with its strong historical sense of place”.

With an average of around 5,000 readers and 100 posts per month, the figures speak for themselves but there is still more to do.

The Challenges of Journalism

Rye News was set up in part due to the unease about the demise in local news. The Rye Observer used to focus only on Rye and it had a dedicated journalist who would visit Rye each week to discuss issues with local people.  It then became The Hastings & Rye Observer and the amount of coverage on Rye reduced.

The challenges brought about with the rise in digital technology, social media and the growth of fake news have affected both national and local newspapers. The Guardian editorial written by Katherine Viner in 2016 “How Technology Disrupted the Truth” is well worth reading as it is as relevant today as it was then and illustrates the reasons for the public’s current lack of trust in journalism.

“….In the last few years, many news organisations have steered themselves away from public-interest journalism and toward junk-food news, chasing page views in the vain hope of attracting clicks and advertising (or investment) …”

In the early days many older residents in Rye preferred printed news and the team working on Rye News also had their digital abilities stretched.  A partnership was formed with Adams of Rye to put sections in their monthly magazine Fixtures which led to many readers taking a look online for more news. The potential of the site is and was enormous but forward planning with a community project run by volunteers isn’t easy. In view of those difficulties, it has been a incredible achievement and in my view could become a model for other communities who no longer have a voice.

Building Trust in Readers

People choose national papers which reflect their own views and values.  That’s not so easy with community news projects run by volunteers with differing political views although “Opinions” provides people with a place to have their say. Volunteers have to make decisions about how to source reliable information, fact checking, tone of comments, political balance, whether to print press releases rather than writing articles, and the list goes on.  Those who run tourist businesses might like Rye News to be more geared to visitors whereas residents might not want to encourage hoards of visitors to the town.

Unexpectedly Rye News found itself dealing with momentous issues such as Covid and Brexit. As the local community sprung into action to help residents deal with the pandemic, Rye News became a trusted source of information and support.  Divisive issues such as Brexit have had to be handled sensitively with feelings on both sides still running high.  The moderator on the team has a very hard job making decisions about the tone of debates as well as weighing up what is fake news and what is truth.

Although Rye News is a service for the community it does need some income to cover costs and it has preferred to go down the sponsorship route rather than advertising.  New sponsorship packages are currently being developed so that more support can be given to local businesses who have and will be going through tough times ahead.  Discussion has taken place on whether sponsorship money could be found for taking on a young person to train in journalism.

The Power of Teamwork

As someone with a very small role I find it quite remarkable how the editorial team of volunteers has managed to meet every Saturday for 8 years (online during Covid) to discuss issues to be explored over the coming week and once briefed go off write their stories and create a weekly newspaper.

The team is made up of directors, editor (now 4), subs, marketing experts, photographers, digital/web consultant, and contributors with a wide mix of interests and expertise. Contributors place their news stories on the dashboard and after the Wednesday deadline the subs check/edit all the stories, the editor publishes on Thursday night, an email alert is prepared by a volunteer marketing expert and delivered to your post box each Friday.  The IT consultant devotes endless hours to making sure the right technology is in place and the site is functioning well.  To readers it may appear a seamless operation but to those behind the scenes it can be like a pressurised Fleet Street Press Room!

The first editor, Tony Nunn, did a brilliant job and set the standard very high which was a tough call for many aspiring contributors. I remember an article I wrote about the lovely Rae Festing and we clashed when he wanted me to refer to her in the article as “Festing” because that was standard practice in national news.  There was something about Rae that meant I couldn’t bring myself to do it, so Rae it was! I have no doubt that Tony and his wife Jane got exasperated with many of us but he taught us all so much – even a few new expletives. Charlie Harkness followed with his dry sense of humour and tales of his experiences as a Whitehall Mandarin. His mix of humour and strong political views livened up communications as much as John Minter who sparked many heated debates.

Join us at The Rye Arts Festival

At this year’s Rye Arts Festival in September Rye News is sponsoring a talk by the investigative journalist Nick Davies, on “The Challenges of Journalism”.  He will also link this to the importance and challenges of local news.

Nick Davies spent 40 years as a journalist, mainly doing investigative work. Towards the end of his career, he was centrally involved in three landmark stories: uncovering the phone-hacking scandal in Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper empire; initiating the alliance of news organisations which published US war logs and cables obtained by Wikileaks; and working as part of the team which handled the British end of Edward Snowden’s leaks about the US National Security Agency.

We hope that you will join us at the event. Tickets for this event, which will run on Wednesday 14th September at The Rye Community Centre, are now available from Rye Arts Festival Box Office 

What Happens Next

Recently Rye News has welcomed Chris Lawson as Editor, whose calm demeanour will lead the way to manage change, and Nick Forman as enthusiastic News Editor is encouraging new and current contributors to go out and see the stories all around them. New Directors have been appointed and there will be more news on that soon. There is a new Podcaster on the team and more volunteers are coming on board.

But huge thanks go to Kenneth for his vision, determination and patience.   A perfect  quote from him as he retires from the Board “it has been a tremendous privilege to be associated with this Rye News project.  If the ship has occasionally been storm-bound and lost its rudder, so the challenge of keeping on course has been challenging and has given unlooked for opportunities for friendships and fun. As some comedian once remarked, “I have thoroughly enjoyed every other minute”

The Editor and Directors are currently working on a forward plan and will be sharing this  with you in a future post but meanwhile the team welcomes views from all readers – whether local or not – to help them shape the debate.  Share your views on what you’d like to see in Rye News – or what you don’t like.

Please join in the debate by commenting below. If you’d like to join the team email us on info@ryenews.org.uk

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